I really like the movie Ocean’s Eleven. It’s a heist film about twelve criminals who get together to rob three Las Vegas Casinos at exactly the same time. They put together this incredibly complex plan that needed to be executed with laser-like precision if it was to have any chance of succeeding.
As much skill and determination as a guy like Danny Ocean had, he’s got nothing on the devil. Satan is the master thief. He’s been plotting and stealing men’s souls for thousands of years now. He’s no lazy tempter. He calculates his every move with deadly care.
Consider his impeccable timing. He waits until Jesus is just about starving to death, and then he shows up and tempts Jesus with food. But maybe even more significant than the temptation itself was the set-up. The devil didn’t show up while the angels were singing the Gloria, after all—he waited to tempt Jesus until he got Him alone. He waited until the most opportune time possible, when the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness, that desolate lonely place.
The devil can do his best work when he gets you alone. Remember Eve? He caught her alone, too. And how often have the devil’s most severe temptations come to you while you were alone? After all, when no one is looking, we think we can get away with just about anything. This is just one reason why it’s so important for us to come together as Church. When you separate yourself from Christ’s body and try to go it alone, you’re a sitting duck and the devil’s as skilled a hunter as there is.
There’s something else we should notice about the devil’s timing here. The last thing that happened just before the temptation account was the Baptism of our Lord. The words of the Father were still ringing in Jesus’ ears: “This is My Beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
“Nonsense,” the devil says. “You aren’t the Beloved Son! What kind of father treats a son this way? Here you are, driven out into the wilderness according to Your Father’s will, forsaken by God and man, and about to starve to death!”
In the same way the devil wants you to doubt God. If you must believe in God, he’d have you doubt that God could love a sinner as great as yourself. Better yet is when you look around at the evils and suffering in the world and conclude that no God could possibly exist, or that if He does, He’s either evil or too weak to do anything about it.
That fact that Satan tempts Christ immediately after His baptism is a reminder that the entire Christian life, from font to the grave, is a battle against Satan. Now obviously it’s not pleasant to be assaulted, but there’s actually some comfort you can take in the fact that Satan tempts you, believe it or not. The devil doesn’t waste his time tempting just anybody. He saves his greatest assaults for God’s most prized possessions. The fact that Satan is concerned with you at all is, in a strange way, something in which you can rejoice. It means you matter to God. His most elaborate temptations came to Adam and Eve, the crown jewel of God’s creation, and to Job, about whom God said, “there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil.” The fact that the devil tempts you is one of those good news/bad news scenarios. The bad news is that the devil’s tempting you. The good news is that he only tempts those whom God loves.
One of the devil’s favorite temptations, and we see it in today’s Holy Gospel, is to get you to indulge. He would have you deny yourself no pleasure. “You’re hungry, Jesus—tell these stones to become bread.” As we see with our Lord, Satan wants us to put the wants of the body before the needs of the soul, to put the physical above the spiritual. It was the same thing with Adam. Adam got kicked out of Paradise because of his belly.
“Indulge” is Satan’s message to you. The Flood came about because of excessive indulgence. Same story in Sodom. The prophet Ezekiel says, “Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy,” (16:49). Serve yourself first, look out for number 1. That was the devil’s temptation to Adam, the Nephilim, the Sodomites, to our Lord, and to every human being who’s ever lived since. “So indulge,” Satan says,” “And then if you have a little bit left over, go ahead and give that to the needy or to the Church or whoever. Whatever you do, make sure you take the best part for yourself.” How often have God’s priorities taken a back seat to some other worldly priority? Repent, O Sodomite.
Learn from the example of your Lord. When Jesus fasts, He establishes a pattern for the Christian life. Fasting is a good spiritual discipline. Jesus doesn’t say, “If you fast” in His Sermon on the Mount, He says, “When you fast.” From food yes, but especially practice fasting from evil thoughts and harmful words. Practice virtue. Don’t put yourself first. The first three Commandments say God comes first. Your neighbor comes second. That’s what the other seven commandments teach. There is no commandment to love yourself. You already do that way too much. That’s why fasting is so hard. It means self-denial. The idea of fasting is that you take less for yourself and give more to others. But Jesus didn’t say indulge yourself, go get someone else to carry the cross, and then go do what you like. No— He says deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Me.
The way of the cross is not popular. The call to repentance and self denial don’t sell millions of copies or fill gigantic arenas. But it does have the advantage of being true. Life in Christ is hard. It’s a constant battle with the devil. He comes to tempt you even as he came to tempt Christ. Neither does the enemy settle for external attacks; he’s got an inside man working against you 24/7 in your own sinful flesh. If for no other reason, this alone should be enough to convince you of your constant need for His Holy Word and Sacraments. Be on guard. People with faith stronger than yours and lives holier than yours have fallen. Let the one who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall. Be on guard against the devil’s temptations.
There are three basic ways to respond to the temptations of the Evil one. The first is to simply give in. You’re most likely to do this when you think you can get away with it. Sometimes we just don’t care about the consequences and really want whatever fleeting pleasure sin gives. Other times we try to justify our sin. This happens especially when we get angry. In our anger, we say and do some pretty terrible things, things that would normally appall us if we weren’t angry. Anger is like Novocain. It acts like a spiritual anesthetic, numbing us to our own thoughts, words, and actions. We think being hurt gives us carte blanche to just lash out however we like in retaliation. Now contrast this with Christ, the Lamb of God, whose only retaliation was to pray, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
The problem with giving in to the devil’s temptations is that it puts you at risk of losing your faith and salvation. Lutherans are really good about knowing that there is absolutely nothing you can do to earn God’s favor. Even the very best things you do are tainted by sin. But what Lutherans don’t know so well is that you can certainly earn God’s wrath. Scripture doesn’t teach works-righteousness, but it does teach works-damnation.
The second response to the devil’s temptations is to fight. But this is a losing battle; “On earth is not his equal.” He’s a seasoned pro and you’re still learning the rules of the game. This is sort of like the first option, except instead of giving in right away, you struggle a little before the inevitable happens.
The best–and final–option is to repent. Quit relying on yourself. Rely on Christ’s faithfulness. His death and resurrection are the only way out of this battle. You cannot overcome Satan, but Christ can, and He has.
So do not despair. The life of faith is not only difficult, it’s impossible for fallen humanity. But it’s not for Jesus. Your weaknesses is borne by His strength. He was tempted, yet remained faithful for you. He was innocent, yet suffered the death of the guilty for you. He was dead, but rose from the grave for you. What you could never do for yourself, He does for you in His Holy Sacrament.
Satan’s strategy was almost flawless. But his fatal mistake was pride. He forgot who was in charge. He might have thousands of years experience on us, but he’s got nothing on the Eternal Alpha and Omega.
With might of ours can naught be done, soon were our loss effected; but for us fights the Valiant One, whom God Himself elected.
Soli Deo Gloria
+Rev. Eric Andersen; portions inspired by/adapted from Spangenberg, Chrysostom, Frese, Petersen, Wolfmueller & Curtis (2006)
St. Matthew 4:1–11
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